Six Questions for a Geological Curator – Rob Lowther

Written by Rob Lowther, Rock Collection and Fieldwork Administrator, Imperial College London

1. What sort of Geological collections do you look after?

As I’m the Rock Collection and Fieldwork Administrator in the Department of Earth Science and Engineering, Imperial College London, I look after all the geological materials that are held within the department. Our geological collections can be broadly broken down in to 3 main categories:

  1. The teaching collections including hand specimens of rocks, minerals and fossils, thin sections and maps that are used for teaching today, and the classic teaching collections that were reference samples for courses that were run in days gone by.
  2. The research collections, related to PhD and MSc projects or from individual academics. Being in the Royal School of Mines, a lot of this material relates the studies of ore deposits from all around the world. There are also samples from research trips to specific areas such as the Swiss Alps and Greenland.
  3. The named collections are very varied in content depending on the interests of the named individuals, examples of these are the Huxley Fish Collection and the Sherman evaporites collection.

And, there is also a miscellany of interesting samples that such a broad collection acquires over time.

Two of the rooms that house the Imperial collections, looking surprisingly tidy! © Rob Lowther.

2. What is your collection usually used for and by whom?

Unsurprisingly, the specimens are used primarily in the teaching of our students within the department. The teaching collections support the students’ learning, but some courses dip in to the rest of the collections to use more specific material, such as material from our mining collection. Some of our students also use collection material to assist with their individual research projects in the later years of their studies.

The collection is also used by researchers who request specific material to assist with their projects. In recent years, this has largely been mineral samples that can be used as standards for experiments and specific rock types from certain localities. One of these projects looked at the materials involved in the construction in the Albert Memorial in Hyde Park.

Left: The Albert Memorial in London’s Hyde Park. Right: A sample of Corrennie Granite, which is one of the Memorial’s component rocks. © Rob Lowther.

Collections material is also used in the department’s outreach activities, such as open days and widening participation summer schools. This is a great opportunity to share our material with the public and to spark an interest in the earth sciences.

The surprise users of the collections for me personally are art student and artists. For example, we’ve had artists view samples for life drawing, and borrow large volumes of rock specimens to form bases for dresses made of recycled materials to highlight the impact of climate change.

3. What is the most viewed part of your collection and why?

I think the clear winner is Sample A202 – the Shap Granite, part of our teaching collection. Now the fact that the Shap Granite is one of my favourite rocks is just a coincidence, but it is a nice rock that can be used in a variety of courses and given the chance I will suggest this rock to get it out and seen by as many people as possible.

A202 – The Shap Granite. © Rob Lowther.

Outside of teaching I think that the most viewed or at least one of the most popular samples we have is a slab of Itacolumite, affectionally called “the bendy rock”, that we use in outreach activities. Itacolumite is a sandstone that has an unusual flexibility when cut into a thin slab like the one that we have. For a long time, this slab lived in a display case sagging between two supports. A lot of people just assumed that the slab was cut and shaped like this, but when I incorporated it into part of an interactive open day display people were amazed to see the rock bend! It is still great to see people discovering this for the first time.

The bendy rock – An Itacolumite from Brazil that always amazes. © Rob Lowther.

4. What does your day to day work involve?

My typical day to day work extends beyond curation and collections work. In pre-Covid times my day to day would involve organising collections material for teaching and ensuring that all the samples that are needed are there for the students and teaching staff when they need them. I also organise our undergraduate fieldwork program, which is a focus in the spring to early summer, and am responsible for of the department’s lecture capture software and first aid provision. Most of my collections work therefore happens while the students are away on fieldtrips or during their holidays.

However, this year Covid has changed my day to day for several reasons, such as fieldwork being postponed or delivered digitally, and access to campus being restricted at times. Currently my day to day work largely revolves around the digitisation of teaching material from the collections to enable the Department to teach our courses remotely. I produce 3D models of our hand specimens either with a 3D light scanner or photogrammetry, taking high resolution photos of our hand specimens to accompany the models, and taking thin section photos to produce virtual thin sections that can be studied. The images are uploaded and curated on our bespoke virtual learning environment – the Earth Science and Engineering Remote Classroom (ESERC) which is used by our students all over the world and allows for the same standard of teaching to be provided as within the physical classroom. It will also allow for our collections to reach more people now that we can digitise our collections, either through ESERC or other online platforms, which is quite an exciting prospect.

5. How did you get into working with geological collections?

It was purely by chance, as many do. I was researching the Yukon gold placer deposits at the School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds; My funding had come to an end and so I was looking for a new opportunity. Among the many advertisements, I saw Rock Collection Administrator position at Imperial and I applied straight away as I thought working with a collection within a university would be very interesting and rewarding and the rest of the job would be ok to do if it allowed that exciting aspect. Luckily, I got the job and I’ve been in the post going on 6 years now.

Rob Lowther with an Ichthyosaur jaw that was “discovered” in the collections in 2019. © Imperial College London.

6. If you had unlimited funds, how would you develop your collection?

If I had unlimited funds I would jump straight to curating and managing the collections full-time. I would also take on an assistant (or two) as there is more than enough interesting work to spread around and working as part of team is always better than on your own. With the extra time and people resources I would undertake a full census of the collections to find out exactly what we have and where it is, and build a modern, digitised catalogue. I would also love to fill some of the gaps within the collections.  I would also continue to digitise the collection material so that it is possible for students, staff and the public to explore what our collection has to offer, encouraging further teaching use and research, as well as to hopefully inspire the wider public to take an interest in the earth sciences.

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